On July 2, 1881, only four months into the first term of President James A. Garfield, an angry attorney from Illinois named Charles J. Guiteau shot Garfield in the torso at a Baltimore train station.
Guiteau had a motive. He was furious because he believed, because of his work for the campaign, that Garfield would give him a job in the new administration. But none was forthcoming. It was revenge. Garfield died of the wounds months later.
It was a shocking thing. Congress immediately got to work figuring out how to prevent the next assassination. They had the theory that they needed to end the system of patronage in government, so that way people wouldn’t get mad and shoot the president. Not a very good theory, but this is how politics works. The result was the Pendleton Act that created a permanent civil service. The new president, Chester Arthur signed the bill in 1883. It was done: The administrative state was born.
What Congress did not understand at the time was that they had fundamentally altered the American system of government. The Constitution nowhere provides for a permanent class of administrative overlords to whom Congress could outsource its authority. It nowhere said that there would exist a machine technically under the executive branch that the president could not control. The Pendleton Act created a new layer of statist imposition that was no longer subject to democratic control.
It wasn’t so bad at first, but then came the Federal Reserve, the income tax, and the Great War. The bureaucracy expanded in scope and power. Each decade, things got worse. The Cold War entrenched the military-industrial complex, and the Great Society built a massive civilian-controlling welfare state. So on it went until today, when it’s not even clear that elected politicians matter much at all.
As just one example, once Donald Trump figured out that he had been tricked by Anthony Fauci, Trump considered firing him. Then came the message: He cannot. The law doesn’t allow that. Trump was surely amazed to hear this. He must have wondered: How is this possible? It is very much possible. That same status pertains to millions of federal employees, between 2 million and 9 million, depending on whom one wants to include as part of the administrative state.